MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines on Wednesday, June 24, justified its joint naval drills with Japan despite the absence of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries.
"The ongoing exercise with Japan is done outside the Philippine territory. It's over the territorial waters. So it is not covered by the agreement," Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said in a forum on the proposed VFA with Japan.
Gazmin did not elaborate.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the territorial waters cover up to 12 nautical miles from a coastal state's baselines or edges.
A coastal state exercises sovereignty over its territorial sea.
Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte, for her part, explained that the Philippines "has had these exercises before with our strategic partners," Japan and the United States.
"It should not be taken as an affront to any other, and is an expression of cooperation and learning from all those involved," Valte said.
Philippine Navy spokesman Colonel Edgar Arevalo also described the training exercises with Japanese troops – two activities so far – as "customary navy-to-navy events we accord to visiting navies."
Philippine officials issued these statements as the Philippines and Japan, former World War II enemies, conduct their first bilateral naval exercises.
The Philippines and Japan use a newly signed executive agreement to provide legal cover for these historic drills in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
'No VFA with Japan under Aquino'
At the same time, the two countries plan to draft a VFA that will strengthen their ties in the face of an aggressive China in the East China Sea and the West Philippine Sea.
On Wednesday, Gazmin defended the proposed VFA between Manila and Tokyo as critics fear a repeat of US troops' alleged abuses under a similar arrangement.
He also quelled concerns about signing a VFA with Japan, which invaded the Philippines during World War II and committed various atrocities against Filipinos. (READ: Aquino orders report on WWII 'comfort women')
Gazmin said: "Some may also ask, 'Why Japan? Have we forgotten what Japan did in the Philippines and to Filipino people during the Second World War?'"
"To this, I say: 'We have not. And we will not forget what took place then, which is now a part of our collective experience and national psyche as Flipinos. But that does not mean that we should remain stuck in the past. Indeed we should take stock of what has transpired but we should be ready to move forward and beyond.'"
Gazmin, however, said the Philippine government does not expect to finish the VFA before President Benigno Aquino III steps down from office in June 2016.
He pointed out that the VFA between the Philippines and Australia, in fact, took 7 years to complete.
"It will take some time before the VFA will be signed," Gazmin said. – with reports from Carmela Fonbuena and Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com